The scene: The Washington bar, at two in the hot afternoon; it is cool, dim, and quiet. A few patrons murmur in the distance. I sit sipping still another beer, contrasting today's disappointments with tomorrow's possibilities. So far they look good. Nataly Washington, the genial bartender, stands at the far end polishing glasses. Only one thing in my life is incomplete, my lifelong enterprise . . . but that does not interfere with my sense of peace.
The woman: She comes in out of the bright light and sits halfway between Nataly and me. Parted in the middle, her brown hair hangs straight down to her shoulders. She orders a beer. My brand! Out of the corner of my eye, my left eye, I appraise her. Her nose is not longer than most, her makeup not too garish nor her dress too immodest. In short, she is a perfectly acceptable person with whom to speak. I mutter under my breath, then approach her.
"I see you and I have the same taste in beer. That seems a good omen. Shall I join you? We can sip our brews and chat about the weather, or cats, or international politics... or secret things we'd tell only to strangers."
She turns to me, for a moment without expression, her face round and plain; then a wide smile dissolves her defects. A pleasant experience, not only for the acceptance she offers but for its magic. Weak in the knees, my heart pounding, I sit. She is more than I bargain for.
The introductions: "My name is Angela Syringa," she tells me and sips some beer. I pause. There is magic in some names and danger in their telling. My silence trickles by. She has told me hers--do I tell her mine? The silence threatens to congeal into solidity. I think to return to my seat at the end of the bar, but wrenching through the barrier of my trembling brain, I say, "I'm Alberto Magus." Casually, to mask my shaking fingers, I sip some beer, watch her covertly, dare not face her, sip more beer. I mutter under my breath.
"Wow, what a name." She giggles. "Is it really Alberto Magus? I'm really not Angela Syringa, but it's a nicer one than mine and I use it whenever I can get away with it. I knew I could use it with you." Her full smile enchants me. "You have a great name. Don't take offense, but is that your real name or did you figure it out yourself?"
She tilts her head back and pours the contents of the glass down her throat. Her pure white neck in its rhythmic contractions demands my attention. I lean forward to kiss it, but remember we hardly know each other.
I mutter under my breath, then say, "Let's sit at a booth in a dark corner and tell each other outrageous lies. The truth, here and now, would be absurd."
The discussion: First I say grandly, "Would you like something interesting to sip?" She nods. "Bartender," I call out, "two sazeracs, and two more when those are done." I can tell by Nataly's bewilderment she has never heard of the drink. Without acknowledgment she begins the process of creation. I turn to Angela.
"Is it my real name?" I frown to show I am serious. "Angela . . . I may call you Angela?" She nods, face now sober with concentration. "Angela, understand that whatever name I give myself is my real name. So, if I tell you I am Alberto Magnus, that is exactly who I am, regardless of who my parents believed me to be."
The sazeracs arrive in brandy snifters; I am quiet while Nataly places them on the table and leaves. I continue. "I surely love my parents, but they never had the moral right to give me anything more than a temporary identity. Like Native Americans, I can choose my own, two of them, three, five hundred, a thousand, whatever number suits me. It is my fancy to be Alberto Magus and that is whom I am until my fancy dictates otherwise."
I pick up my glass, gesture toward her with it, and drink. She laughs in delight and does the same. "Wow," she says, "some drink." We sit, contemplate each other, sip, smile, sipsmile, sipsmile, and the bartender arrives with two more glasses. I forget if I ordered them. No problem.
Angela sighs. "It's like I've known you forever . . . and you know, it's like I've rediscovered something deep down . . . that I never thought possible again. Isn't that strange! Alberto Magus, you are a magician." She pours down at least half her drink in one swoop. My heart pounds, my terror only partly blunted by the alcohol suffusing my brain. She has discovered me!
My tongue, lubricated by the beer and sazeracs, twists thickly around the words, "How can you possibly know that?"
Giggles. "How can I know what?" Angela finishes the sazerac and licks the rim with her pink tongue. For a moment her eyes glaze. Part of me wants that tongue.
"How can you know that I'm a mage?"
Her eyes refocus. "You're really a magician? You do tricks?" With a frown, she turns away as if dismissing an inferior.
"No, I am not a magician!" This I say loudly to emphasize her wrongness. The bartender looks our way, then resumes polishing her glass. "I am a mage. Do not call me a magician. I hate them, with their fancy costumes and absurd illusions done with smoke and mirrors and trapdoors and slight-of-hand." Knocking over an empty (thank God) glass, I stagger to my feet and look down at her. Eyes wide, she looks up at me. I say, "You must not call me a magician. I am Alberto Magus, mage."
My legs wobble, each going in its own direction. I grasp my glass, pour down the sazerac as if dying of thirst on a burning desert. Without instruction, the wise Nataly brings two more. She says, "There are more people in here now. Please keep it down." I look around. There are men and woman staring in our direction. Abashed, but relieved because my legs are uncertain about their task, I sit.
Self exposure, part 1: Angela blushes and looks away. "I don't understand. You're a mage, but not a magician? How can there be a difference? It's all dishonest nonsense for the simpleminded." More sazerac slides down her throat. She looks at me again, adjusts her purse and pats her hair into place. I know the signs of departure.
"Before you leave, listen to me." This is desperate, I know, but she must not depart without hearing me out. "I am not a magician. I have told you that. I am a mage, a real one, but you must understand that my powers have not yet come to me."
Her jaw drops. She stares, says, "What are you talking about? You're a... mage, but have no powers? If you have no powers, how the hell do you know what you're talking about? I mean, how do I know what you're talking about? Her smile is cold as she tries to stand, but her legs fail and she falls back into the seat. She puts her hands flat on the table to push herself erect.
"Listen," I say, "when I was six, my parents took me to see The Great Alfonso, Magician To The Universe." My lip twists into a sneer. "He seemed to me a great man... I aspired to be like him." Angela leans forward. Her perfume drifts into my nostrils. For a moment I am entranced, but it is important to continue lest she escape the web of my words. "At ten, I realized it how empty a goal it was and felt shame at my desire. Then, one morning, I awakened to the knowledge that I am, me myself, a mage--who knows, perhaps the only one in the world."
"Wait, wait, you just woke up and knew you were a mage? That doesn't make any sense." Still, she leans even closer.
Ignoring the delectable aroma of lilacs, I say harshly, "It doesn't make any sense?" My tone is a reproof to her objection. "Tell me, when did you first know you were a person? Surely you didn't always know it. Didn't you, one day, become aware of yourself as an individual... and I bet you remember that day."
She nods, and drinks more sazerac provided by the wonderful bartender. "At age twelve--" (Does she, just a bit, slur her words?) "--one day, I looked in a mirror and knew there was a person looking back at me."
"Yes, yes, but how did you know?" (Do I too slur my words?) "Didn't the knowledge just flood you, make a sudden difference in how you spoke, your posture, the kind of clothing you wore? Wasn't it an epiphen-epiphen-ephipen--" (Damn, my tongue has its own agenda) "--I mean, a transfor-for-mation of your fledging ego into a new pattern, a new structure, sort of a rack on which to hang your personality?" While this all rushes out, I watch her eyes grow big. "And you just knew it all to be true."
She closes her eyes. A moment goes by, then another moment goes by. I think she is unconscious. My own lids sag. Then she says, "That's right. I just knew it. And that's how I became Angela Syringa. All the other girls seemed to be only at the surface of their skin--part you could see, part you couldn't.. Inside of me I found... me. Angela Syringa was there." She finishes her drink. With her arms flung out in a grand gesture, she says, "I am she."
"Yes, you understand," I shout in a whisper, "that's exactly how it works. I awakened that magic morning and knew the truth. I am a mage. I cannot yet stop the sun in its trip around the Earth--" (Did I get that right?) "--I cannot yet control the tides, I cannot even win a baseball game, but there are times, perhaps today, when I mutter my incantations and... things work out."
Her mouth, pink and delicious, partly open, forms an "O" of astonishment. I start to mutter under my breath, but the disobedient words come marching out: "Oh Zarestra, Oh Mithottrumphor, grant my desire." I tremble, but lean forward and gently kiss that sweet circle. It acquiesces.
I wave in the direction of the bartender. More sazeracs arrive. I shift my position to sit next to Angela, hip to hip, exchanging body heat.
Self exposure, part two: Throwing her arms around me, she says, "There's something I gotta tell you. I love you and I'm gonna tell you my secret." She loves me. Are my powers become real? Then I think, Oh God, now revelation. She'll tell me some mediocre adventure, perhaps how she was molested as a child, or didn't accept instruction in church, or how she ate worms, or some inconsequential bit of trivia. She nuzzles my ear. My left arm goes around her back; my right hand stands ready for other adventures.
"I collect ghosts." She pauses. I stare. She continues. "When I was a kid, they scared me, but I figured if I could collect them, I wouldn't have to worry about them. So I did and I don't." Giggles and more nuzzling. "You're the only person who knows about this."
I am sad. She is young, but old in interests. Here is the beginning of the aging process. "I see," I say, "you have a scrapbook filled with pictures of old English castles in which rep... reputed ect-o-plas-mic appa... appa... apparitions frighten visiting tourists." Proud of myself, I kiss her cheek.
She pulls away from me. "You absolutely don't understand. I don't collect pictures, I collect ghosts, real ones, ones that clank chains and moan in the night."
I stare at her. She stares back, then looks away. As if admitting a crime, she says, "Well, I don't have any yet, they're damned hard to capture." Then defiantly she adds, "But I'm working on it. Success is almost certain, I mean guaranteed, I mean sure as shootin' I'll get some. I collect ghosts. That's what Angela Syringa does and that's who I am." Some sazerac dribbles from the corner of her mouth. Tenderly, I lick it dry.
She nuzzles me with increased vigor. Her lips send electric messages through my ears. I observe my body parts become tense with desire. My hand reaches toward her breasts anticipating their softness. My brain twirls in its alcoholic bath, struggles with lust and rage. Then the urge to throttle her appears. She is nothing but a failure, a woman with no life of her own who must invent a bogus reality to shore up her own emptiness. She is a shell of deceit, unwilling to face the tawdry reality of her life, so lives in a fantasy world. I pull away from her. "You're nothing but a humbug!" I say. I kiss her again.
Madness resolved: She says, "Let's go to my place. I can show you the clever jar in which I'll keep the captured ghost secure and content. This is how you do it. You pour some honey into it and set it out at night. Once the ghost dives in for it, the honey keeps him stuck." She giggles again. "Only male ghosts need apply, and I bet when I get home, one will be there."
I throw some money in the general direction of the bartender. Arms around each other to keep from collapse, we stagger into the afternoon light. A taxi zooms us to Angela's apartment. She fiddles with her key; the door pops open, we tumble in and crash on the carpeted floor. I'm on top of her. The smell of lilacs is everywhere. She sighs, "We really should look at the trap." I say, "Let's rest right here, for the day's revelations have made me tired." Tenderly, I add, "Oh, Zar... oh Zaro.... Oh, the hell with it."
After a while, we do rest.
Epilogue: We combine our resources, she with her honey trap and me with my powers. Our children have the advantage of our discoveries. But the girl child says, "I don't want to be called Cleopatra any more, I'm Hazel." "Yeah," says the boy, "and Ptolemy is a goofy name. Call me Bill." Upon these pronouncements, they march out. Angela sips some sazerac and sobs with pleasure. I grin. Their grandparents will love them.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.